In Florida, any person who sends a written or electronic communication threatening to kill or cause serious bodily harm to another or a family member of that person or threatens some other act of terrorism commits a serious crime in Florida. Under the Florida statutes, that conduct constitutes a second degree felony which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. Obviously, one would hope that the police are certain the communication is serious before arresting someone for a crime of this nature as people send jokes or ridiculous texts and other communications all of the time. Having a crime like this with such a serious potential penalty creates a lot of room for abuse by law enforcement. However, if a person is dangerous and sends a serious threat to another, this is the crime to deal with it.
These days, there are many different ways to communicate and many different social media avenues to send information. In a case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, a high school student sent a Snapchat picture to another student which was a picture of a rifle and a message that there will be show and tell the following school day. As expected, the student showed it to others and school officials learned of the communication. Ultimately, the student who sent the picture over Snapchat was arrested for sending a written threat to kill or do bodily injury.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the charge. He argued that the defendant was joking and the photo did not specifically threaten the victim in any case. The state responded that the victim did not believe it to be a joke and was worried the defendant would come up to the school with a gun and cause serious harm. The court agreed with the criminal defense attorney and dismissed the case because there was no specific threat to kill or cause harm. The state appealed the dismissal. The appellate court focused on what constitutes a threat under the Florida statute. Should the focus be on whether the person sending the threat was serious or joking, or should the court look at whether the victim reasonably believed the threat was serious? The appellate court determined that the reasonable reaction of the victim should determine whether a crime was committed. In this case, the victim testified that he was scared and believed the threat to be serious. The fact that there was a recent school shooting prior to the threat was also relevant to the victim’s interpretation of the communication. Because the threat was sufficient to cause alarm in a reasonable person, the appellate court reversed the dismissal and allowed the state to proceed with the case.
Of course, if a person sends a threat that is obviously ridiculous or could never be carried out, and the person receiving the threat testified that he still believed it to be serious, that does not mean the state could prosecute the sender. The recipient’s interpretation of the communication does take precedent over the sender’s claim that it was a joke, but the recipient believing the communication to be a threat still has to be reasonable. If a reasonable person would know the communication was a joke or unrealistic, the case may be dismissed even if the victim claims he believed it was serious. Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to decide at a hearing on a motion to dismiss, or a jury if the case went to trial.